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Planes return to airport after colliding with birds

By Renuka Singh

An illegal dump and nearby crops created a "bird hazard" for airplanes leaving the Piarco International Airport on two consecutive days over the Easter weekend. Two planes were forced to return to the airport and make emergency landings after a collision with birds damaged two engines.

On Friday, a United Airlines flight bound for Houston had to return to Piarco when the collision stalled one of its engines. The flight was later cancelled. And yesterday, a similar incident occurred and this time a Caribbean Airlines flight bound for New York was forced to make an emergency landing. Transport Minister Devant Maharaj yesterday ordered an immediate investigation into the incidents. Maharaj mandated the Airports Authority to "immediately fix" the situation.

Ramesh Lutchmedial, head of the Airports Authority (AA), yesterday said the birds were attracted to a dumping ground and farm crops, both along the Mausica Road which runs parallel to the runway. "Both planes were just climbing out of Piarco and had to land back into the airport," he said. "Bird hazard is a major problem and airports have to do what they can to mitigate that problem," he said.

He said when the farmers got permission to plant that specific area, they were told not to grow crops that would attract birds. "We told them they had to be careful," he said.

He said though it was a seasonal problem, the farmers were asked not to plant peas and corn, which attracted the birds. He said the dump also attracted carrion birds and those posed another risk to the departing planes.

Lutchmedial said whenever planes were forced to make emergency and precautionary landings, it added additional costs to the airport's overheads. "We have to pull out the full emergency landing procedure. Full fire service has to be on standby and all emergency services have to be mobilised," he said.

Lutchmedial explained that "poor service costs" and maintenance delays added to the cost of emergency landings. "It adds up, especially when you have to cancel a flight because you have to put up the passengers and deal with meals," he said.

He said the AA went as far doing forensic research and found that around 15 years ago, large ground birds migrated from Venezuela and attracted caimans. When farmers began tending the land, the caimans were killed by the machinery, and that attracted carrion birds.

"It's an evolving process," he said.

Lutchmedial said Maharaj demanded the AA take immediate measures to "alleviate the bird hazard". He said they have spoken to the nearby farmers on Mausica Road and will be meeting with them tomorrow to find a solution to the issue. "It may be that they have to get rid of the crops that are attracting the birds," he said.

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